Northwood legend Carson Shaner sunsets softball career at N.C. State as leadership, home runs fuel legacy

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RALEIGH — Carson Shaner could have called it quits.

Nobody would have blamed her.

In late March, N.C. State was sitting at 19-10 on the season and 2-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, good for last in the ACC softball standings.

The Wolfpack had just suffered six straight conference losses in two series sweeps to then-No. 13 Duke and unranked Virginia.

She could have called it a career, riding off into the red-, white- and black-themed sunset as the ACC’s 2022 home run leader, refusing to risk further injury to her broken hand.

But — as anyone that knows her would tell you — quitting isn’t in her DNA.

“I was just pushing through,” Shaner told the News + Record ahead of the Wolfpack’s first-round ACC Tournament game against Georgia Tech on May 11. “I was like, ‘It’s not going to feel good,’ but I just wanted to be back for my team and finish my career how I want to finish it.”

Her refusal to give up and willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good of the team — including the health of her hand — are just a couple of reasons why Shaner’s presence has been invaluable to the Wolfpack during her three seasons in Raleigh.

But it started well before then, during her time 30 miles down the road in Pittsboro, the town in which her last name is synonymous with athletic greatness.

Cementing a legacy

At Northwood High School, the surname “Shaner” is akin to athletic royalty, thanks in part to Carson Shaner’s grandfather, John R. “Jack” Shaner, Northwood’s first-ever football head coach from 1970-74, who served another stint as the Chargers’ head man from 1978-81.

Carson’s parents, John and Natalie Shaner, each had their own athletic careers at Northwood in the 1980s, with John being a three-sport athlete in football, basketball and baseball, while Natalie was a cheerleader.

When Carson was around 3 years old, she said her dad put a bat in her hands for the first time, discovering she was a lefty just like him.

From there, she was destined to create her own legacy.

She did just that.

However, it took work to become a Division I softball player — and lots of it.

In middle school, Carson said she was one of the smallest players on her team.

“I really just didn’t have much power,” she said, a statement that would soon be light years away from the truth.

When she got to high school, Carson said she joined a travel softball team out of Burlington called the NC Thunder, which was led by Head Coach Dave Wilkinson, who lit a fire underneath her.

“He was like, ‘Look, if you want to compete at any college level, you’ve got to get serious. You’ve got to get serious into lifting, hitting extra, doing all of these things,’” Carson said.

He referred her to Carolina Acceleration, a Greensboro-based training program, where she began doing strength and conditioning training, including running on the treadmill, powerlifting, throwing, hitting and everything else under the sun to boost not only her softball technique, but her physicality and strength, too.

It didn’t take long before she began seeing results.

“I just started to see a lot of growth in my game; in all aspects of the game, actually,” Carson said. “And after I started lifting and getting really serious with that side of the game, I started to see power, started getting more doubles and hitting home runs and I even had a better arm in the outfield.”

In a couple of short years, Carson went from what she deemed the smallest player on her middle school team to a dangerous power hitter, paving the way for her historic career with the Chargers.

She collected 103 hits and 98 RBIs in four varsity seasons at Northwood as one of the best offensive players in program history. She still holds the school record for most career home runs (16) and single-season records for home runs (8), hits (42), triples (11), RBIs (47) and batting average (.609), all of which came in her senior season in 2017.

Her individual success also translated to team success, with the Chargers posting a 74-18 record during her time at Northwood, which included four playoff berths and third-round appearance as the No. 2 seed in 2016.

But as great as it felt for her to win games on the field as a Charger, her favorite memories come from those she formed relationships with off of it.

“I was able to play softball and basketball at Northwood, which was really awesome, and I had some great teammates on both teams,” Carson said. “I just built some really cool relationships that are still going to this day. … Some of my favorite memories were winning (conference) championships and having great playoff runs, but honestly, just those relationships I built and those forever friendships were my favorite parts about high school.”

Carson made her college decision well before her breakout senior season, committing to UNC-Wilmington her sophomore year — despite strong pushes from UNC-Pembroke, where her dad played college baseball, and UNC-Greensboro — where she’d spend the first two years of her collegiate career as a Seahawk.

In 61 career games with UNC-Wilmington during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Carson collected 29 hits, 28 RBIs, four doubles and seven home runs, including her first college homer that came in the form of a grand slam against East Carolina on March 13, 2018.

After two seasons, however, she decided it was time for a change, citing a desire to be closer to home where she’d be able to see her family and friends in the stands of most, if not all, of her home games.

Enter Head Coach Jennifer Patrick-Swift and the Wolfpack.

“When I went into the transfer portal, Coach Patrick(-Swift) contacted me pretty quickly, so we talked on the phone and we wanted to talk in person,” Carson explained. “As soon as I got (to Raleigh), I was like, ‘Wow, this is exactly what I’m looking for.’ A family environment close to home that competes at a high level. I just knew this was the place I wanted to be.”

From then on, Carson would leave her mark on Dail Stadium and her teammates and coaches as a player with tons of on-field skill and a boatload of leadership qualities off of it.

She’d almost instantly become a leader of the Pack.

Leading the Pack

Carson underwent surgery for her broken hand — an injury she sustained during a game against Virginia on March 20 when a pitch connected with the outside portion of her right hand — on March 22.

She was back swinging a bat less than five days later.

Then, in the third of a three-game set against Louisville on April 3, she made her return from injury — just 12 days after her surgery.

If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about Carson, then what will?

“I was leading the conference in home runs at the time, and it would have been the easy decision to go out on a high note, where everybody remembers what I did, but that’s not how I want to be remembered,” she said. “I was voted the captain and I wanted to be back and lead my team, help them in all aspects of the game.”

The Wolfpack’s coaching staff doesn’t typically name a formal team captain for each season. Instead, they have the players rank each of their teammates in five categories: family first, self second; grit; pride; strength and excellence.

And when the votes were tallied for the 2021-22 season, Carson was ranked at the top of just about every category by her teammates. Her coaches, who said they agreed with her teammates’ assessment of her, then chose to name her the official 2021-22 team captain, a decision that she said caught her off guard.

“I was honestly just in complete shock and honor. We never have captains, but I was honored with the opportunity,” Carson said. “I was just thankful that not only did my coaches believe in me to hold that standard, but so did my teammates.”

In three seasons with the Wolfpack — including the COVID-19-shortened season in 2020 — Carson grew by leaps and bounds in terms of leadership and on-field production, seeing her numbers jump dramatically from her junior year to her first year as a graduate student.

In 2020, Carson played 21 of the Wolfpack’s 25 games, collecting 10 hits and 10 RBIs to go along with five home runs in a season in which N.C. State could have competed for the ACC title had the coronavirus pandemic not prematurely ended the season.

But in her final season, Carson played 47 games — nearly the same number as her junior and senior seasons combined — and racked up 26 hits, 22 RBIs, four doubles and 11 home runs, a number that left her tied for 15th in the ACC and second on her team behind redshirt junior Logan Morris (14).

It was a season that came to an end in the first round of the ACC Tournament to Georgia Tech, 4-2, with the Wolfpack finishing last in the ACC with an overall record of 33-23 (7-17 in conference).

It wasn’t the ideal way to end Carson’s career with N.C State, but it hardly taints her journey, her accolades and her accomplishments over the last decade as a Charger, a Seahawk and member of the Wolfpack.

“I think just wearing ‘Wolfpack’ or ‘N.C State’ or anything like that across your chest is a privilege and an honor,” Carson said when asked about her time at N.C. State. “And even stepping on the field in front of the fans, looking up and seeing my whole family there, who has been watching me compete for the last 18-19 years that I’ve played, has been really special and I’m really going to miss that.”

Carson will be sticking around Raleigh for the time being to finish up her master’s degree in the Parks, Recreation, Tourism (PRT) and Sport Management graduate program at N.C. State. She received her undergraduate degree in Sport Management with a minor in Sports Science in May 2021.

And she hasn’t ruled out the idea of getting a coaching job once she graduates, an interest fueled by her leadership qualities, knowledge of the game and work she’s done with the Northwood baseball team on which her brother, junior Jackson Shaner, is an important member.

Last summer, she helped Northwood Head Coach David Miller coach the Chargers’ American Legion summer league team, working with the hitters. She said she hopes that her summer coaching contributed even a little to Northwood’s postseason success this past season, when the Chargers made it to the third round of the playoffs.

“I would definitely be interested in (coaching) because I just love working with young kids since I know that they have a lot of the same resources that I did,” Carson said. “I want to be able to give back not only to my community in Pittsboro and my high school, but just the softball and baseball community because they can achieve those goals and those dreams they have just like I did.

“I was a little tiny girl from Pittsboro and I was able to do it,” she continued with a laugh, “so I just want to help these kids achieve their goals, as well.”

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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